Tuesday, 23 February 2010

Road movies: On Chris Petit's film & video essays

Last updated February 24, 2010
Brilliant profile of film director Chris Petit in conversation with Allan Bairstow. 

“I was interested in seeing if there was a way of producing a film which was constructed more like writing - because when you are writing something you don't necessarily know where it is going to end up... The Falconer [Petit, 1997] for example never really aspired to be a film, more to a state of mutation or hybrid. It was an essay or graphic novel as much as it was a film, an exercise in vertical layering rather than linear unfolding.”
Truth and invention, real lives and fiction become indistinct and equal elements, merging with other people's work in the found-footage style, to create a single fabric of random spontaneous expressiveness, not unlike the life that slides by in front of a shop video camera. Each piece of film presents a clue to an inextricable tangle to which everything in the world is connected in its spider web of time, space and chance.
   — Excerpt from Serafino Murri, `Chris Petit, Anatomies of the Image', in Afterall - A Journal of Art, Context and Enquiry, Issue 5, February 2002

Chris [Petit] was much taken with [critic Manny Farber's] writings on American cinema of the 1940s, and with the way in which Farber could notice a detail in a movie, a moment, a glance, and celebrate the beauty and complexity of just that. The narrative was largely unimportant, but the way an actor like Robert Mitchum moved, or the way Bogart looked up just before crossing a street, these were the things that Farber believed were significant.
     So Chris made a film essay about these ideas that is a road trip across Arizona and Nevada and California, and through the psyche of American cinema. It's a documentary in which the road becomes a movie, just as it did for Wenders and so many others. It's about film and about memory, as well as about the way we mis-remember movies -- and life -- all the time. It's a television programme that's also about photography (the Polaroid frame is a key device) and about painting. It's about Rossellini and Godard, and about Europe and the USA. And it's a sort of a love story too, between the filmmaker and his travelling companion.
     There are so many things to like about negative space: the ways in which it interrogates sequences and the surfaces of the cinema image; its complex, half-heard and half-recalled soundtrack; the sense of nostalgia for cinema, and for a particular studio-based cinema from a specific historical moment; the unexpected beauty of small-town America in both the 1940s and the 1990s; its analysis of physical and psychological and cinematic space; the bold, deliberate provocation of a film made for television that breaks most of the rules; and then at its centre, the rueful, wise and fragile Manny Farber, filmed so informally by the director on a camcoder that sometimes you wonder if he ever looked through the viewfinder.

Film Studies For Free's author has been doing a little research on the wonderful work of British filmmaker and video essayist Chris Petit. It seemed only proper, therefore, that she should share the excellent online and freely accessible sources she came across in the process -- including the remarkable documentary embedded above - with this blog's faithful readers.

If you are specifically interested in Manny Farber, subject of Petit's brilliant 1999 film for television negative space (someone, anyone, please release this film on DVD!), then you should also check out yesterday's FSFF post.

Petit has recently premiered, in Rotterdam and London, a new documentary called Content, described in its press material thus:
an ambient 21st century road movie that is essay rather than fiction, drift rather than destination. It is a film about life in the rearview mirror, memories of other journeys (Poland to Texas), the You Tube generation and email seduction. It is also about driving into the flatlands of late middle age, about fathers and sons and growing up in the cold war, about genocide and political assassination, and the postwar landscapes of Europe and the USA.
Content will be screened again in early March at London's ICA.

If you live in or near that city, you can see two of Petit's feature-length films for free at the BFI Southbank Mediatheque (Radio On [1997] and London Orbital [2002], co-directed by Iain Sinclair).

Online work by Chris Petit:
Online writing about Chris Petit's films

    2 comments:

    John Wyver said...

    Thanks for another great set of links, and also for including my chunky quote.

    At Illuminations we'd love to release 'negative space' on DVD, but the key rights are with the BBC (it was made for a series of creative arts documentaries that I edited called Tx.) and they have proved unenthusiastic about -- or rather, rapacious in their commercial terms for -- licensing what they perceive to be marginal titles.

    But is it too much of plug to note that Illuminations publishes on DVD 'London Orbital' by Chris and Iain Sinclair and also Chris' compelling film essay 'Unrequited Love: On Stalking and Being Stalked'?

    Kathryn Mackenzie said...

    Thanks so much for all this fascinating information and all the links. I'll look forward to seeing 'Radio On' and 'London Orbital' the next time I'm in London!